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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson is a collection of five separate short stories compiled after Johnson's death, each of which is colored with reflections on life and contemplation of its meaning and what happens after death. These stories were all written during Johnson's last days, so...

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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson is a collection of five separate short stories compiled after Johnson's death, each of which is colored with reflections on life and contemplation of its meaning and what happens after death. These stories were all written during Johnson's last days, so his preoccupation with life and death is understandable.

The first story, titled "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," follows Bill Whitman, an advertiser, and his life in San Diego. The story trudges through his daily existence, which is boring and rather stale, and juxtaposes it against his voyage to New York City to receive an award for an ad he had help create years prior. The other colleagues who had worked with him don't show up to accept it because they are further along in their careers than Bill and too busy to be bothered to receive the award. After an exciting voyage back to New York City, he returns home and settles back into a comfortable, but dreary, existence.

The second story is titled "Starlight in Idaho," and it takes the form of letters from Cass, a drug addict rehabilitating from alcoholism in a rehab. As he goes through rehab, he details delusions of grandeur and psychosis until he finally stabilizes. Once he leaves the program, he finds religion and hopes to turn his life around.

"Strangler Bob," the third story, explores the life of an eighteen year old inmate who is dubbed Dink by the other prisoners. He stole and wrecked a stranger's car and spends time talking with acrobatic teenage inmate Dundun and B.D., a large, muscled inmate around his age, and they form the "Three Musketeers." Most of the story is just vignettes about their daily prison life, and while they were doing drugs that B.D's younger brother had smuggled him in a soaked magazine, Strangler Bob, Dink's cellmate, tells them that they'll all end up as murderers, just like he is. He claims that B.D. would be the first, and Dink surmises that when B.D. committed suicide 15 years later, he technically had committed his own murder. Dundun later murdered a guard when robbing a drug lord in Kansas City, which resulted in him giving Dink heroin, to which he became addicted. By sharing infected needles with others due to his heroin addiction later on, Dink figures that he must had murdered countless individuals.

The fourth story is titled "Triumph Over the Grave," which is about a caretaker who tends to the dying. He tells two parallel stories about a man with lung cancer who hallucinates and sees visions of relatives and friends. The narrator takes him to the hospital and cares for him until he passes. He does the same for an elderly man on his deathbed. The writer explains that he has seen many people die and that it is essentially meaningless in the end because life continues without you once you are gone.

The final story is titled "Doppelganger, Poltergeist." Kevin, the narrator, shares the story of his relationship with poet Mark, who is a poetry teacher at Columbia, where Kevin attends class. Mark spends much of his time obsessed with Elvis, believing that he died prematurely and was replaced by a twin that was presumed stillborn. Kevin follows Mark's near madness as he pursues the conspiracy theory for years until he finds the grave of Elvis' twin. His obsession eventually leads him to suppose that Kevin is his own stillborn twin reborn, and Mark is later arrested for desecrating Elvis' brother's grave.

The five stories reflect on life and death as Johnson muses over whether it has any meaning in the end.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1619

Author: Denis Johnson (1949–2017)

Publisher: Random House (New York). 224 pp.

Type of work: Short fiction

Time: 1960s–present day

Locale: United States

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a posthumous collection of short stories by National Book Award–winning author Denis Johnson, who died in 2017.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a posthumous collection of short stories from National Book Award–winning author Denis Johnson. Johnson, who became a kind of literary cult figure after the publication of his short story collection Jesus’ Son in 1992, died of liver cancer at the age of sixty-seven in May 2017. Johnson often wrote about death and dying. The five stories that comprise Sea Maiden are also variations on this theme, though of course, given the circumstances, they carry an extra weight. Novelist Rick Moody, who reviewed the collection for the New York Times, wrote: “The problem with a posthumous book is that it’s hard to see the work clearly for the tragedy that orbits it. . . . We see in every exchange the hand of fate.” Johnson was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2015, and depending on when he wrote these stories, likely considered his own mortality in a new and unsettling way in their construction. Certain passages, such as the closing lines of the excellent “Triumph over the Grave,” are haunting in their prophecy: “It’s plain to you at the time I write this, I’m not dead,” the very Johnson-like narrator concludes. “But maybe by the time you read it.” This story in particular is a haunting fulfillment of its title. Like rock star David Bowie’s album Blackstar, released just two days before his death, it is a missive from behind the grave, a “triumph” over death. Regardless, there is more to the collection than the timing of its release. The five stories explore death, but also memory, the nature of reality and regret. The characters, men of various ages, come to terms with their past and future selves.

Johnson published his first book, a book of poems called The Man among the Seals, in 1969, when he was just nineteen years old. He went on to study writing with the hard-drinking American short story master Raymond Carver. Johnson’s twenties were characterized not by writing but booze and heroin—an important biographical note considering the rough-and-tumble lives of many of his characters. He got sober at twenty-nine and published his first novel, Angels, five years later in 1983. He published three more novels before his debut short story collection Jesus’ Son in 1992. That book, which was made into a film in 1999, remains Johnson’s best known. A protagonist named F—khead narrates each of the book’s eleven stories. A struggling addict, F—khead is the quintessential Johnson character: scraping the bottom, mysteriously sympathetic and deeply flawed. The way people talk about the book and its characters is emblematic of the way they spoke of Johnson’s entire oeuvre. New York Times book critic Dwight Garner, in his review of Sea Maiden, wrote of Jesus’ Son: “Like bulbs planted upside down, these men and women sought sunlight and escape but could not find it. . . . Their veins were flooded when possible with the relief of heroin; our veins with the pleasures of Johnson’s resonant voice.” Johnson wrote more novels and began reporting from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In 2007, his novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as was Train Dreams (2011) in 2012. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is Johnson’s second short story collection—Garner described it as a companion piece to Jesus’ Son, with a few recurring characters—and twentieth book.Courtesy of Random House

The first story, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” follows disparate events in the life of a middle-aged ad man named Bill Whitman. Whit, as he is often called, lives in San Diego with his third wife, Elaine. His output is unremarkable save for one ad he made years before, involving an animated rabbit and a bear. It was an ad for a bank. Whit is coming to terms with his own mortality; in one scene, his ex-wife calls on the phone to tell him that she is dying. He makes amends for the trouble that he caused in their marriage, but after a long time of speaking, Whit is suddenly unsure which ex-wife he is speaking to; he has two. He comforts himself: one or the other, the “crimes had been the same.” The story blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, a thread that continues throughout the collection. Whit wills the magic of fairy tales (such as the “sea maiden” of the title) to manifest itself in his mundane life. In one surreal moment, Whit goes to work and discovers his secretary wearing a Mardi Gras mask—and then realizes he forgot that it was Halloween.

In his review for Vulture, Christian Lorentzen was effusive about the merit of “Sea Maiden.” He described the story as among “the best fiction published by any American writer during this short century.” Other reviewers found it a bit of a weak opening for Johnson’s otherwise quite powerful book. Johnson’s craft is superb, here, but as Adriana E. Ramírez noted in her review for the Los Angeles Times, it evokes an era of masculine fiction when grittiness was measured by a man’s proximity to a female sex worker. The female characters in “Sea Maiden” are noticeably outdated (the story takes place in the 2010s) and sometimes offensively portrayed—a shame considering its otherwise bewitching, undeniable beauty. Johnson’s gift was that he could reveal the humanity of even the most horrible people; that gift did not always appear to extend to women.

The second story in the collection, “The Starlight of Idaho,” is written as a series of unsent letters from a young man named Mark Cassandra, or Cass. Cass has checked into a rehab program. He is reaching out to various people in his life—and later, as he devolves, to Satan—to make amends as part of his recovery. His rambling, earnest voice is the story’s centerpiece. While Cass marvels, along with the various doctors that have been tasked with reviving him, that he is not yet dead, Dink, the protagonist of “Strangler Bob,” the third story in the collection, wrestles with an ominous prophecy of murder in a county jail in 1967. At the story’s climax, Dink and his friends take LSD, or some other mystery psychedelic soaked on a page in a magazine. Johnson’s talent for rendering this experience lies in his ability to integrate its magic into Dink’s real life. Johnson’s characters keep returning to questions about magic and the afterlife. Johnson writes them as variations of the same experience.

The fourth and arguably best story, “Triumph over the Grave,” features an older writer and writing professor. He recalls disparate moments from his life, the central two involving the deaths of two men whom he once knew. One is a visiting writer living in a university-owned house on a remote Texas ranch. The man does not know it, but tumors have begun to alter his brain. He claims, to the narrator, that his dead brother and sister-in-law are living in a pantry in the house. The proximity of the “ghosts” seems a metaphor for one’s proximity to death and the people one knows who have already died.

The collection ends with a story called “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” about a poetry teacher turned literary critic. The plot hinges on one of his former students, another poet named Marcus Ahearn, who is obsessed with a conspiracy theory involving Elvis Presley and the singer’s stillborn twin brother. The elements of the tale are exuberantly strange and set against the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Reviews for Sea Maiden were largely positive and sometimes reverent. Some also touched on the book’s spiritual themes. In later years, Johnson described himself as a Christian writer, and claimed to read passages from the Bible and Alcoholics Anonymous every day. Laura Adamczyk, who reviewed Sea Maiden for the A.V. Club website, noted that many characters in the book yearned to see a larger design in random coincidences, writing, “The Largesse of The Sea Maiden presents a belief system, not of God but of hexes, whammies, jinxes, and plain bad luck.” These beliefs, however strange, sustain them. Lorentzen wrote that each of Johnson’s characters were experiencing “a crisis of faith or a conversion.” They were looking for salvation, but as with most of Johnson’s protagonists, they never really find it.

Review Sources

  • Adamczyk, Laura. “Life and Death Are Weird and Wild in Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” A.V. Club, 15 Jan. 2018, www.avclub.com/life-and-death-are-weird-and-wild-in-denis-johnson-s-th-1822078550. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.
  • Garner, Dwight. “Catching Up with Denis Johnson’s Star-Crossed Drifters.” Review of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson. The New York Times, 15 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/books/review-denis-johnson-largesse-of-sea-maiden.html. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.
  • Lorentzen, Christian. “Denis Johnson Left Us with One Final—and Terrific—Book.” Review of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson. Vulture, 11 Jan. 2018, www.vulture.com/2018/01/denis-johnson-the-largesse-of-the-sea-maiden.html. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.
  • Moody, Rick. “Denis Johnson’s Death-Infused Last Stories.” Review of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson. The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/books/review/denis-johnson-largesse-of-the-sea-maiden-stories.html. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.
  • Ramírez, Adriana E. “Denis Johnson’s Posthumous Collection Is Beautiful. But Does It Critique or Reinforce Toxic Masculinity?” Review of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson. Los Angeles Times, 12 Jan. 2018, www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-johnson-ramirez-20180112-story.html. Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.
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